I read somewhere it takes approximately three years for an expatriate employee to become as productive in China as at home. The first year is spent adjusting (in many cases positively) to the culture. It can be like a honeymoon for many. The second year can often swing in the opposite direction, as the less-colorful traits begin to take their toll. Little things that don’t bother you at first become unbearable: the constant noise, public spitting, blatant disregard for nearly all traffic signs, lanes and laws. The third year is when you become accustomed to how things work and settle in. You adjust to a new reality and live in it.
My favorite example of how accustomed I’ve become to China happens every time a friend visits and we take a taxi. Over Spring Festival my brother and I headed into town from the airport in heavy traffic. We spent half the trip in the wrong lane. I happily told my brother about my plans for his stay while he white-knuckled the door handle and prayed to whomever an atheist prays. The large industrial vehicles coming straight at us as we occasionally used either shoulder to pass traffic in construction zones failed to distract me.
It’s Impossible to Generalize China
The country is too populated. Income gaps and access to modern technology create cities like Chengdu, where uneducated migrant laborers from the countryside share intersections with men in Bentleys returning from corporate meetings in Europe. One can’t look at these two men and say that China is uneducated or that China is too materialistic. Over the past 20 years of struggling to understand China I’ve probably learned more about myself than about this culture.
Things become apparent though. One of those things is how foreigners deal with culture, and how I think one should approach dealing with it. I meet all types of people here, from all over the world. Many of us are happy to be here, enjoying the adventure of soaking in another culture. But how should we act? How do we avoid proving true the negative stereotypes held by some Chinese nationals whose understanding of foreign culture comes only from Hollywood, Weibo and China’s news networks?
Four Tips for Adjusting
The following four suggestions represent what I’ve learned about how to act as a foreigner in China. I’m sure they won’t work for everyone, but they help maintain balance and sanity in a country that challenges us with a cultural tightrope.
#1: Avoid Complaining
I try to avoid complaining in China unless I’m speaking with close personal friends, regardless of their nationality and cultural background. I could be wiping spit off my work shoes at the time and still I would respond to “Don’t you miss living in the US, where everything is so much cleaner and more modern?” with “No, because the hot pot isn’t spicy enough there, and I don’t get to learn as much about a new culture.” My grandmother used to tell me “Nobody likes to listen to a chronic complainer. Now eat your peas.” I think she was right. Chinese culture seems indirect enough that saying something like “I’m sure China is working hard to improve its air quality” is already a scathing indictment. So I stick with being positive.
#2: Keep Cool
Try not to blow up. I am proud that in the past 15 months of living in Chongqing and Chengdu, I’ve only half-lost it one time. I couldn’t get connected to my home internet. I went to China Telecom and got this colossal runaround. I was sent upstairs to talk to a complaints guy who was overloaded. It was almost closing time and I was going to be ushered out of the office and asked to come back the next day. All I wanted was for them to send someone to my house to take a look at my connection. I had already bought a new modem as they suggested. I went back downstairs and said “Can you just arrange to send someone to my house?” They were confused because they had told me to go upstairs. Why didn’t I just go back upstairs? I, on the other hand, was confused because they didn’t have anything else to do and they were customer service reps. I angrily blurted out a few frustrated sentences and left. Eventually I found out the problem was my laptop. I should have held the anger in and gone home to sit and meditate, which brings me to item #3.
#3: Center Yourself
It might be yoga. It might be a beer at Machu Picchu. It might be drawing daisies on the bottom of your foot with a red ink pen while listening to Burle Ives. Personally, I try to spend about 10 minutes every week standing in my shower taking stock of my current situation. What am I happy about? What am I angry about? Would I leave China if I had a chance to work at home in a dream job? The answer to that third question has always been “no”, even when I got a dream job offer a month ago. Doing this helps me deal with item #2.
#4: Be Nice to People
About a year ago I met an American who had lived in China once before for a year and could speak Mandarin pretty well. He was in his mid 20s. He was boisterous and outgoing. Like me, he had just come back to China and planned to stay awhile. After about two days I wanted nothing to do with him. Why? Because he just didn’t seem to get it.
He talked incessantly about how everyone was trying to cheat him and rip him off. He was rude to a lot of people. A few of us had lunch at a Korean BBQ. When the cleaning lady came by she spent her time wiping our table down by asking us all the standard questions: “Where are you from?” “How do you speak Chinese so well?”, etc. He was extremely rude to her and eventually she realized he was being sarcastic and walked away hurt and embarrassed. Shortly after that a very cute girl who probably wouldn’t have looked twice at this guy in the States smiled at him and he immediately started chatting with her, answering all the same questions he’d just been asked by Auntie Countryside.
In China, you’re as close to a celebrity as you’re going to get. If you abuse that and belittle people you’ll end up about as loved as Lindsey Lohan. But if you’re as kind and patient to everyone as you can possibly be, in the long run you’ll be happier because most people have a positive experience interacting with you. Mother Theresa was a lot more respected than Paris Hilton ever will be. So was my Grandma.
So that’s my unsolicited advice to all of us. It’s not prompted by any event and it’s not a complaint about how we behave. It’s advice on how to remain sane. We’re guests here. We are largely treated with curiosity, respect and a mild amount of awe. On the rare occasions that we’re treated with derision, it is our duty to be gracious. In the long run, it’ll result in a better experience.